The Webb Telescope Reveals We Don’t Want Astronauts to Discover the Cosmos

By Martin Rees and Donald Goldsmith

NASA’s launch of the beautiful pictures from the James Webb Area Telescope indicators the beginning of a brand new period of space-borne astronomical remark. With seven occasions extra light-gathering energy than the Hubble telescope, its predecessor, the Webb is opening our eyes to the cosmos as by no means earlier than attainable and can give us new details about faraway worlds, the formation of galaxies and the furthest reaches of house. However the Webb telescope additionally exemplifies an important sensible level: It exhibits why robotic explorers are superior to human astronauts in deepening our understanding of the universe.

Contemplate the brand new telescope’s location in house. The Hubble needed to stay simply 335 miles above the Earth as a result of NASA had solely the astronaut-crewed house shuttle to launch it; it due to this fact suffered interference from mild mirrored off the planet’s floor and from the impediment of the Earth itself. It was as if astronomers had positioned one among Hawaii’s mighty Keck telescopes amid the lights of New York Metropolis as a substitute of on a darkish mountaintop within the Pacific. The Webb array, in contrast, orbits at a deep, darkish level known as “L2,” nearly one million miles past Earth—which it might do as a result of it was launched by an uncrewed rocket and is designed to take care of itself with steering from controllers on Earth however with out hands-on human intervention. (An unusually massive grain of house mud did some injury to one of many telescope’s 18 mirrors in Might, however that has not to date affected its general operation.)

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